The ‘smellscape’ | #30DaysWild Day 24

Another Saturday, another busy changeover day; the difference today, however, was that we were amongst the final boatload of visitors leaving the island aboard Colin’s bright yellow catamaran in the afternoon.

Saying farewell to Bardsey’s familiar hump-backed silhouette, we passed the bustling auk colonies along the East Side, the oscillating flocks of Manx Shearwaters passing through the sound, the white specks of feeding Kittiwakes and Gannets, before pulling in to Porth Meuddwy on the mainland. I look forward to returning to the isle in a couple of weeks’ time to see how the season has progressed – a fresh selection of summer wildlife to delve into!

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Manx Shearwater

A morning of to-ing and fro-ing on the tractor and trailer with visitor’s luggage was punctuating by scrambling gear together for our annual family holiday: you know, the essentials like butterfly net, specimen pots, ID guides, camera, notebook and binoculars…

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Amongst the busy-ness of the day, a particular aspect of the island stood out vividly to me – and one which I thought appropriate as a focus for today’s #30DaysWild blog: the smells and fragrances. We as modern humans tend to place a disproportionate focus on our sense of vision and hearing. And it’s true: if I had to lose all but one of my senses, I think olfaction would be one of the first I’d drop. But at the same time the aromas of a place and of specific living things can be incredibly evocative.

Ancestrally we would have been far more reliant on our sense of smell for a number of activities: from sniffing out a range of different foods and medicines, to avoiding dangers and sensing conspecifics. Yet we barely use olfaction for these purposes in modern societies, except perhaps for the appreciation of fragrant flowers and perfumes that we like to douse ourselves with (speaking with a royal ‘we’). Smell is still used widely in indigenous peoples to discriminate between items: for example, tribes in the Peruvian Amazon can identify tree species, medicinal plants, food sources and even tree relatedness via an efficient sense of smell. These cultures also tend to have a far greater vocabulary of words to describe the different smells, compared to the meagre selection on offer in the English language.

This interesting study, for instance, found that people from the ‘Tsimane’ tribe in the Bolivian Rainforest had a far higher sensitivity to odors than a similar group of people in Germany.

Returning to today, I spent some time trying to focus on the range of different aromas drifting around: most of them were very pleasant, I have to say (although there is a rotting Grey Seal carcass in one of the bays with a less-than-sweet whiff!): the bright yellow Lady’s Bedstraw along the walls was incredibly pungent, mixed with the heady scent of sweet clovers amongst the nearby hay meadows; then there was the contrast with the crisp sea air and seaweeds of the coast; the dominating sweetness of early morning honeysuckle flowers, and the leafy green richness of fresh growth as I stepped onto the mainland in the afternoon.

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the wildflower meadows on the island dominate some of the ‘smellscape’ at the moment

It’s so hard to describe smells, and it’s annoying you can’t capture them on camera!

I love it how different scents can take you straight back to a specific place and moment: the infusing smell of a pine forest under intense midday heat in Spain; the aromatic scent of herbs and succulents in a Mediterranean garrigue scrubland during the summer; a blooming British wildflower meadow or field of oilseed rape; the rich, fresh smell of greenery in a woodland in spring; the overpowering smell of guano in a coastal seabird colony; or perhaps the amazing aroma of coconut from a mountainside of bright yellow gorse in the early spring.

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The coconut-like smell of gorse flowers in the spring is amazing

Some of the most memorable smells for me are those known as ‘petrichors’: this describes the distinctive earthy aroma arising when rain falls on dry soil. During periods of dry weather, some plants exude oils that are absorbed by the surrounding rocks and soil. During a downpour of rain, these oils are released into the air, and may be combined with other compounds and even ozone if lightning is added to the mix. This combination makes for a seriously cool fragrance, and these petrichors vary from place to place depending on the soil type, plants and various other environmental factors.

Petrichor – ‘a pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather’

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I spent eight weeks in Transylvania (Romania) last summer, and the massive thunderstorms and dry weather in between made for some fantastic aromas from the earth

So even if olfaction isn’t as much of a necessity for finding food these days, it’s certainly still a huge enjoyment to use!

And of course animals are hugely varied in their sensitivity and use of this sense, from the blind Kiwi using smell to sniff out food, to plants like cabbages releasing semiochemicals when being munched on by caterpillars, which brings in an army of parasitic wasps to destroy them.

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